Just after midnight on August 31, 1997, in Paris, a car carrying Diana, Princess of Wales, and her new love interest, "Dodi" Fayed, plus a bodyguard and a driver, went out of control in a Paris tunnel and crashed. Fayed and the driver were killed instantly; Diana died later in a hospital despite efforts to save her. The bodyguard survived despite critical injuries.
The world reacted.
First came horror and shock. Then blame: at first, the entire blame seemed directed at the paparazzi, photographers who were following the princess' car, and from whom the driver was apparently trying to escape. Later tests showed the driver had been well over the legal alcohol limit, but immediate blame was on the photographers and their seemingly incessant quest to capture images of Diana that could be sold to the press.
Then came an outpouring of sorrow and grief. The Spencers, Diana's family, established a charitable fund in her name, and within a week, $150 million in donations had been contributed.
Tabloid newspapers with sensationalist headlines written about the Diana/Dodi affair just before her death were pulled from newstands by request of the publishers.
Princess Diana's funeral, on September 6, drew worldwide attention. About half the people in the world saw it on television. Millions turned out to line the path of the funeral procession.
The day before Diana's funeral, apparently influenced by criticism that her reaction was too controlled, Queen Elizabeth made a rare public statement about Diana's death. Elizabeth also ordered the British flag on Buckingham Palace to fly at half-mast, an honor reserved over a millennium only for reigning monarchs.
Why the reaction?
Not everyone's reaction was for the same reasons, but some of the reasons were:
- Diana had already, through the quite-public display of her marriage falling apart and her divorce, her struggles with weight and self-esteem, become cast in a role of the beautiful tragic victim. Seeing her deprived of yet another possible "happily ever after" added to this image.
- Diana had truly touched a human chord among the British people, contrasted to the other royals of the House of Windsor who seemed stand-offish, arrogant, and cold -- and the grief was a recognition of the loss of what prime minister Blair termed "the people's princess"
- Some guilt and shame: the same people who loved to read about Diana's latest fashions or scandals realized that perhaps their hunger for gossip and news had contributed to the mad press frenzy -- and to the mad car chase that led to her death
- Grief for the loss of the royal family's standing: Diana's death just highlighted how far the public image of what Diana once termed "the system" had fallen, through scandals and divorces
- Identification with Diana's quite-public struggles -- her failed marriage, her weight and self-esteem issues
Diana, Princess of Wales, and her story in many ways paralleled much in popular culture. She was married near the beginning of the 1980s, and her fairy-tale wedding, complete with glass coach and a dress that could not quite fit into the coach, was in synch with the ostentatious wealth and spending of the 1980s.
Her struggles with bulimia and depression, shared so publicly in the press, were also typical of the 1980s self-help and self-esteem focus. That she seemed to have finally begun to transcend many of her problems made her loss seem all the more tragic.
The 1980s realization of the AIDS crisis was one in which Diana played a part. Her willingness to touch and hug AIDS sufferers, at a time when many in the public wanted to quarantine those with AIDS based on irrational and uneducated fears of easy communicability of the disease, helped change how AIDS patients were treated.
She had even become involved in a very 1990s issue, that of banning landmines, about a year before she died -- the same issue that attracted a Nobel Peace Prize that year.
Woman of Contradictions
Certainly Diana was also a woman of contradictions, and so many who mourned her were quite well aware of those contradictions.
- Diana was born into wealth, and yet seemed to have a "common touch." She worked, after dropping out of school, as a nanny, teacher's aide, and even housekeeper -- yet her father could buy her a flat. She sometimes wore blue jeans to public appearances -- but they were Armani jeans.
- She hated the constant presence of photographers (paparazzi) and press, yet she knew how to "play" them to her advantage.
- She struggled with her weight, yet it was only after dropping 30 pounds after the birth of Prince William that she became so fashionable. Her bulimia and eating problems were something she struggled with; yet her thinness made her arguably more popular, while sister-in-law Sarah Ferguson's eating problems that led to weight gain made Sarah less popular, a public joke rather than fashion icon.
- Supposedly having transcended her self-esteem problems, she'd suddenly taken up with the playboy jetsetter son of a wealthy Egyptian whose business ethics had come into such serious question that he was unable to get British citizenship.
- Diana was an attention-seeker, but she often stayed at hospitals and other charity sites after the press had left, and she dropped in and visited cancer, AIDS, and leprosy patients when there was no press present.
- Diana's charity work and her landmine activism seemed truly rooted in caring and concern, yet these were also to her advantage in creating a public image.
- Diana's emotional vulnerability was a major part of her popularity, and she was able to warmly mother her sons, and in the early days of marriage show genuine affection easily to her husband; she was able to serve charities and the people they served. Yet her emotional vulnerability also led her, according to some reports, to suicide attempts, and to what she describe in an interview as being a "basket case."
- She was "one of them" (the royal family) and yet was also victim of them and public critic of them.